I recently saw a xkcd strip about the Spirit rover.
I’m notoriously immune to the usual causes that are supposed to make women weep. But tears sprang to my eyes when I saw the strip. Just as I wept while I watched the little robots tending the spaceborne trees in Silent Running; at the launches of the Voyagers; and when I saw the drawing of Sojourner that showed it leaving human footprints on Mars.
These are just instruments. They’re not fluffy, they’re not cuddly. But they represent the best in us – the builders, the gardeners, the explorers.
ETA: My friend Calvin asked an important question in his comment to this entry: “Do you think these robots are pushing our neoteny buttons? The Spirit rover (as well as Wall-E) have the large “eyes” of a child. And the squat proportions of the robots in Silent Running (as well as R2D2) also seem to echo the proportions of a child.”
I considered this possibility. But the Mars rovers and the Voyagers lack several crucial attributes of neoteny: roundness, softness, cooing gurgles.
R2D2 adhered more closely to the neotenic model, and he didn’t arouse these reactions (in me, at least). For me, their roles are what make them so enormously touching — the quiet, uncomplaining, unsung preservation and propagation of supremely “humane” values.
Top, a portion of the xkcd strip Spirit.
Center, Swirl, by Joe Bergeron.
Bottom, a gardener in Silent Running.